"The How -To Magazine For Screenwriters."


Date: 12/03/03

Character Development

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest 



BradDaily Screenwriting Tips 

In the screenplay for "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," the protagonist, Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), pretends to be mentally ill so he can avoid hard labor at a prison work farm and serve out the remainder of his prison sentence at a mental institution where life should be easy.

He was originally sent to prison for having sex with an underage girl.

At the institution, he acts as a teacher for the patients, showing them that independence and sex are what they need to function normally in the outside world and what they need to be free of Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the domineering head nurse who runs the mental ward where McMurphy resides.

It is McMurphy's hatred of rules and the authority figures who make those rules that defines him as a character and helps create conflict between him and Nurse Ratched, the antagonist.

Shortly after arriving at the mental institution, he breaks Nurse Ratched's rules by altering the daily routine of the patients with teaching methods that make them mentally, physically, and socially independent.

McMurphy makes his fellow mental patients mentally independent by convincing them to vote in favor of a change in schedule that would enable them to watch the World Series on TV.

But, Nurse Ratched refuses to allow them to watch the baseball game.

So, McMurphy shows his contempt for her authority by staring at a blank TV screen in the mental ward and pretending that he's actually watching the game.

He uses his imagination to verbally describe the game. And, as he shows excitement, the other patients also become excited.

He has taught them to use their imagination, giving them a taste of mental independence.

Later, he rejects Nurse Ratched's authority once again by stealing the mental institution's bus and taking his fellow patients on a trip that will teach them physical independence.

He drives the bus to a nearby pier and commandeers a boat, which he then uses to take the patients deep-sea fishing.

Once out at sea, he teaches them how to drive the boat, bait a hook, and catch fish.

When they return to shore, they smile and proudly display the big fish they have caught.

They have achieved success as fishermen and have learned the joy of being physically independent of the mental institution for a day.

After returning to the institution, McMurphy gives them a feeling of social independence by teaching them how to play basketball as teammates who work together.

He shows an American-Indian named Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) how to shoot hoops.

McMurphy also teaches Martini (Danny DeVito), another patient, to pass the basketball to other patients so the team can score.

Later, after McMurphy launches a rebellion against Nurse Ratched during a group therapy session, she punishes him by giving him electroshock therapy.

He survives the therapy and then shows the mental patients that they can achieve mental, physical, and social independence from Nurse Ratched through the sexuality of women.

He shows them this by having two of his women friends visit the mental ward and give the patients a late-night Christmas party.

At the party, McMurphy suggests that one of the women--Candy (Marya Small)--have sex with Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a patient who fears his mother and Nurse Ratched's friendship with his mother.

The patients revel in the idea of sex and gleefully use a wheelchair to roll Billy into a room in the mental ward where he can be alone with Candy.

Billy and his fellow patients have been temporarily freed from the stifling rules of Nurse Ratched and can openly show a healthy interest in sex.

They have achieved the feeling of mental, physical, and social independence that McMurphy has been trying to teach them.

But when Nurse Ratched finds out that Billy had sex with Candy, Ratched threatens to tell Billy's mother.

Billy reacts to her threat by cutting his arteries open with a broken piece of glass, killing himself.

This enrages McMurphy, who tries to strangle Nurse Ratched to death.

The people who run the mental institution then punish him for attacking her by giving him a lobotomy, making him into a living zombie and destroying his ability to rebel against authority figures.

But, Nurse Ratched and the men who run the institution don't succeed at eliminating McMurphy's positive influence on the mental patients.

One such patient--the American-Indian named Chief Bromden--promises not to leave McMurphy as a mental zombie.

Chief Bromden frees McMurphy's spirit from permanent enslavement in the institution by smothering him to death with a pillow.

Then the chief throws a water fountain through a window in the mental ward and runs off into the nearby woods to be free.

He has learned McMurphy's lesson of being independent.

In "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," McMurphy uses the character trait of rebelliousness as a weapon against Nurse Ratched and as a teaching method to free the mental patients from her and make them independent.

It is this character trait that is used as the primary storytelling tool for developing the plot and the characters.

To use this tool for your own screenplay:


Find news articles in which someone commits an act of independence that is considered socially unacceptable and is imprisoned in some way for doing so.


The incident in which this person commits the act will be the subject of your story.


The focus of your story will be his attempt at teaching other imprisoned people how to free themselves from authority figures through acts of rebellion.


Define the main characteristics that make your protagonist rebellious:


Who does he view as his companion? A woman who breaks rules? A grown man who has been wrongly punished for breaking social rules? A young man who hasn't been allowed to be independent?


What does he do to teach other people how to be independent? Does he help them break out of a prison? Does he teach them how to relate to the opposite sex? Does he give them a feeling of self-worth?


When does he realize that he must teach other imprisoned people to openly rebel against an authority figure in order to free them from mental, physical, and social imprisonment?


After he learns that he cannot obtain freedom by himself? After he realizes that he cares more about others than about himself?


Where does he experience the realization that he won't obtain freedom from imprisonment without help? Is he in a location that is similar to where he was originally caught doing something illegal? Is he in a place that reminds him of recreational activities he participated in as a free man? Is he in a place where he can rest and think clearly?


Why does he perish at the hands of an authority figure but succeed at freeing a friend from imprisonment? Is he unable to control his hatred of the authority figure? Does he pose too much of a threat to those in power to be allowed to survive? Does he realize that only through an act of self-sacrifice can he truly make a difference for people he cares about?


Describe the process in which the protagonist helps other imprisoned people obtain the independence that is necessary to be free.


Define this process by:


Showing the protagonist teaching other people how to enjoy the outside world.


Showing the protagonist teaching those people how to interact with each other in a loving, cooperative manner.


Showing the protagonist teaching them how to free themselves from tyrants and rejoin society by learning how to rebel.

Note: This list of questions is a partial screenwriting exercise whose purpose is to help you create a story idea.

To obtain a list of questions that will help you write an entire screenplay, purchase's full screenwriting exercise.

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